An Alternative Theology of Destruction: Aligning with Suffering Jewish Flesh
By Miriam-Simma Walfish
In tractate Berakhot of the Babylonian Talmud, the third-century sage Rav imagines God as a lion, roaring nightly the following words after the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE: “Woe to Me, that due to their sins I destroyed My house, burned My temple, and exiled them among the nations of the world” (B. Berakhot 3a). Rav’s statement epitomizes the best-known rabbinic view about the temple’s destruction: The Jewish people are in a covenantal relationship with God, and the temple in Jerusalem was the home in which this relationship reached its most complete fulfilment. Its razing thus signified a breach in that relationship, a breach that this source and others in rabbinic literature attribute to human sin. Had the Jewish people not sinned, this line of reasoning goes, God would not have used the Romans to visit punishment upon them. God’s grief stems from the alienation God feels from God’s chosen people. This theology, with origins in the Hebrew Bible, has been invoked, especially in Jewish liturgy, to explain various communal catastrophes. Such a theology can be deeply problematic, as it blames the victim of catastrophe and imagines a God alienated from and the cause of human suffering. It can even prevent victims and witnesses from coming to terms with trauma, disaster, and pain, and, furthermore, it suggests that, on some level, those who cause national trauma are doing so at God’s behest.
In Rabbinic Tales of Destruction, Julia Watts Belser charts the presence of an alternative theology. Focusing on 27 tales found on a few folio pages of tractate Gittin (55b-58a), Belser argues:
The victimized, vulnerable body becomes the ground out of which Bavli Gittin articulates an alternative theology of destruction, a theology in which God’s presence is aligned not with the ascendant bodies of the victorious Roman conquerors, but with suffering Jewish flesh. (xv)
This statement showcases the two core interventions Belser seeks to make. The first, and most central to Belser’s project, is that noticing the ways in which the rabbis themselves center bodies and flesh can yield new insights about rabbinic theology that go against the dominant, more explicit strand. Equally central to her argumentation, however, is the idea that the rabbis critique the Roman Empire for its hubris and the cruel nature of its conquest.
Belser’s book is a beautifully written, at times poetic, work that draws on a variety of disciplines. . . . Like the text she studies, Belser moves from one to another with ease. The combination of tools can yield stunning insights.
The Babylonian Talmud is a 6,200-page multivolume work compiled in the sixth–seventh centuries CE containing legal teachings, stories, and interpretations of biblical texts extending back to the first century. Because of its nonlinear structure, it is a difficult text to write about academically. Each pericope flits from one topic to another associatively, drawing upon different genres of material, from the legal, to the narrative, to the discursive. Belser’s book is a beautifully written, at times poetic, work that draws on a variety of disciplines: textual criticism, historical criticism, gender studies, materiality, disability studies, and ecology. Like the text she studies, Belser moves from one to another with ease. The combination of tools can yield stunning insights.
In chapter one, Belser draws a contrast between the midrashic work Lamentations Rabbah and Bavli Gittin regarding their treatment of women who are captured and raped by Roman soldiers. She situates Lamentations Rabbah’s disturbing attribution of the women’s capture and rape to their own will and desire within the “gendered rhetoric of covenant” (3). She explores this rhetoric through the lens of the prophet Hosea, who paints the covenantal relationship as a flawed marriage between Israel and God, with God as the slighted husband (8–9). Despite the fact that the rabbis do not generally imagine the divine-human relationship in this way, Lamentations Rabbah paints female sexuality as a provocation, inviting catastrophe (11).
To draw a contrast to Lamentations Rabbah, Belser cites several stories in Bavli Gittin that eschew the link between female sexual sin and disaster. She claims that Bavli Gittin “draws attention to men’s sexual transgression, revealing the depravity of unbridled male sexual desire even as it also upholds the striking possibilities of men’s sexual virtue and sexual restraint” (38).
To support this claim, Belser explores strange stories that examine the role of male sexuality in bringing about or responding to destruction. In one story, a betrothed husband and wife are captured together. In a display of “heroic masculinity” (26), they share a bed every night without consummating their marriage. In another, a husband is tricked by his apprentice into divorcing his wife so that the apprentice can marry her. The husband ends up becoming their servant; his tears at this upending of the proper order seal God’s judgment and ultimately lead to the destruction of the temple. Rather than construct female sexuality as a negative force, as Lamentations Rabbah does, these Gittin stories center men’s sexuality both positively and negatively. This chapter initially takes a positive view of Bavli Gittin’s reluctance to identify female sexual sin as the cause and impetus for destruction. At the end of the chapter, however, Belser takes a more critical perspective by concluding that God still empathizes with the wronged husband. Women are given no voice or agency in these accounts but are “powerful symbolic currency” used to portray the degradation of Israel.
Chapter two focuses on the rabbis’ views of the sexuality of the Roman conquerors. Belser shows that the rabbis ascribe sexual depravity to the Romans and then use that depravity as a metaphor for the violation of the Jewish nation and the Jewish God (58). In so doing, they direct the reader’s gaze away from the suffering of individuals, for example, that of the prostitute violated by Titus on the altar of the temple, and toward the national violation of the Jewish people at the hands of the Romans.
In chapters three and four Belser traces how bodies—beautiful ones and those which refuse to heal—serve as symbols of resistance to Roman domination by their very existence. Chapter three draws our attention to the rabbinic discourse about the beauty of Jewish flesh in captivity, arguing that Bavli Gittin stresses the dangers not only of female beauty but also of male beauty at a time when Israel is under Roman domination. At the end of this chapter, Belser again draws out the nuances and facets of Talmudic tales, while at the same time reflecting on what is missing from these texts. In this case, she suggests that Bavli Gittin has valorized beauty. Therefore, in chapter four Belser turns her back on the beautiful bodies of Bavli Gittin in order to return our gaze to Lamentations Rabbah and its tales of bodies maimed and disabled by tragedy.
At the climax of chapter four, Belser recounts a story in Lamentations Rabbah about Rabbi Zadok, a sage of priestly stock who has been fasting for 40 years prior to the temple’s destruction in a futile attempt to prevent the temple’s fall. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai celebrates Rabbi Zadok’s strength and resilience and boasts to Titus that if another man had existed like Rabbi Zadok, Titus would never have been able to conquer Jerusalem. In response, Titus sends doctors to heal the pious rabbi. Using the frame of disability studies, Belser argues that this healing is yet another form of Roman domination. Healing the resisting body is an attempt to undermine Rabbi Zadok’s physical protest. And yet, Lamentations Rabbah reports that despite being healed, Rabbi Zadok’s body remains forever changed by his fasts. Both the beauty and the ugliness of Jewish bodies can resist Roman domination. But Belser refuses to content herself with this redemptive message. Woven into the fabric of this chapter are bodies she contrasts with Rabbi Zadok’s, bodies that perish in the famine, succumbing to the ravages of hunger.
In chapter five Belser traces this tension between resistance and despair, between memory and exhausted erasure, this time from the perspective of the land. In this chapter, she “push[es] beyond the Bavli’s fantasy of enduring beauty and trace[s] the trail of blood and other fleshly residues of the body that run through Bavli Gittin’s narratives, showing how they serve as a counter-discourse to the idealized notion of enduring beauty” (98). She draws our attention to the “profound responsivity between people and place” that the rabbis imagine when they describe, for example, the land contracting when it is no longer inhabited by Jews.
Whereas other sources portray the land as weeping at its own desolation, Bavli Gittin chooses instead to focus on the land’s reaction to its encounter with human remains. This encounter creates anxiety for the rabbis; while the text seeks to remember the tragedy, perhaps the land seeks to erase it. The rabbis express this anxiety by claiming that after the destruction the Romans did not need to use fertilizer to grow their vineyards, so steeped was the land in Jewish blood (106, 109). Belser turns her critical lens on the imagery that blurs the boundary between blood, flesh, and soil. In the chilling text that closes this chapter, tefillin boxes are found in the earth alongside children’s brains. Belser parses the significance of this mingling of stone, tefillin, and children. Tefillin are the symbol of Jewish covenantal loyalty in rabbinic literature (131), and so their brokenness evokes the violation of this covenant, but this time on the part of God. Belser explores how this image, and the invocation of Psalm 137, acknowledges the depth of Jewish loss (133). This loss sets the stage for the next chapter, in which the rabbis of Bavli Gittin engage in fantasies of revenge—a revenge that also centers on the body.
Chapter six explores a strand of Bavli Gittin that explicitly connects the destruction to unfortunate imperial errors and misunderstandings. The ignorance of Roman generals combines with their brutality to yield deadly consequences. The centerpiece of the chapter, however, is a story that is more about Roman hubris than Roman ignorance. The Roman general Titus commits an act of blasphemy in the temple when he rapes a prostitute on the altar and then pierces the veil to the Holy of Holies with a spear. The curtain spurts forth blood, leading Titus to believe that he has killed the God of the Jews. God does not respond in the moment, but ultimately sends a mosquito to persecute the arrogant general. This insect enters through the general’s nostril and bores into his brain for the rest of his life.
Belser parses every detail of this story to support an overarching claim that through this story the rabbis take aim at empire by pitting Titus, as the exemplar of Roman hubris, against God. She builds to the idea that the punishment is a classically rabbinic “measure-for-measure” punishment. Just as Titus has penetrated God’s “body” (the Temple), through sex and the piercing of the veil, so does God penetrate Titus’s body with God’s own buzzing messenger. She states: “By narrating the corporeal vulnerability of the conqueror, by revealing the porous and permeable nature of flesh, the Bavli exposes the frailty of Empire” (161). This chapter successfully deploys the method of new materiality. By centering the two-fold effect that God has on Titus’s flesh in this story, Belser is able to explicate the rabbis’ complex attitudes toward the divine relationship with empire.
Where chapter six explores the consequences of Roman hubris, chapter seven turns the gaze inward to trace the themes of Jewish hubris and wealth. Belser claims that Bavli Gittin engages in an ethical critique of opulence. It implicates the wealthy in the narratives of destruction, highlighting how wealth obstructs the realities of war, famine, and crisis. In discussing the narrative of Tur Malka, in which half of a community feasts and rejoices on one side of a mountain, while the Romans slaughter the other half on the other side, she states: “The Bavli intertwines opulence with oblivion: the bright lights of the lavish feast black out the violence on the other side of the mountain, leaving the revelers unable to see the cost of luxury” (197).
Belser disentangles the ways in which gender and class play a role in the experience of calamity. One example is Marta bat Boethus, a female aristocrat, who is undone by her overly exacting instructions to her servant about what food to purchase in the market. Belser describes Marta as “the pinnacle of unknowing, the woman whose obliviousness to the siege propels her into an arrogant ignominious death” (191). Servants and agents play a pivotal role in these stories. In chapter six, Roman ignorance led to catastrophe, but here it is the reliance of the wealthy upon servants who misunderstand their missives that the Bavli portrays as equally to blame. Chapters six and seven together once again drive home the point that Belser has been making throughout the book: for the rabbis, the destruction of Jerusalem did not occur because Jews had neglected their covenant with God. Rather, the dual forces of empirical hubris and the excesses of the elite combined to usher in calamity.
In Belser’s postscript she foregrounds theology once more, invoking a tale from another tractate in which Rabbi Eliezer burns the world with his eyes after being publicly humiliated. Belser states that the God portrayed here “is a God who cannot countenance Rabbi Eliezer’s tears, who is overwhelmed by his grief, who feels his suffering so intensely that the divine response engulfs the entire world” (202). She suggests that the picture the rabbis paint of God is one of “divine responsivity.” God brings about the destruction of the temple as an entirely unmeasured response to the shame (“acute social oppression” ) of the anonymous husband (discussed in chapter one), whose apprentice tricks him into giving up his wife, as well as of Bar Qamtsa, whose host did not permit him to remain at a banquet to which he had been mistakenly invited.
Belser focuses on the human tears resulting from shame and on the divine response to those tears. I am left wondering, however, if Belser imagines these specific texts to be doing more work than they actually are. Shame, and even social oppression, is a sliver of the suffering Belser has catalogued, and is very much not “fleshly.” I was thus hard-pressed to locate in this volume texts which describe explicitly God’s alignment with suffering flesh.
Belser models for us throughout an approach to reading rabbinic texts that explicitly and intentionally moves between alignments. At times, she aligns herself with the rabbis. . . . At other times, Belser aligns herself with those whose voices she feels have been muted by the rabbinic texts.
That being said, I found this book extremely valuable because Belser models for us throughout an approach to reading rabbinic texts that explicitly and intentionally moves between alignments. At times, she aligns herself with the rabbis, aiming to understand, unpack, and argue for the value of the commitments she sees in these tales. She does this through careful rabbinic textual work, such as checking manuscripts for all of her core texts and alerting the reader to any textual variants. She is attentive to the exegetical work in which the rabbis engage; she analyzes robust selections of biblical texts in order to contrast the meaning of the biblical passages in context with each passage’s rabbinic interpretation. She also uses the Roman cultural context to explicate the significance of images and settings in the rabbinic stories. To help pinpoint the precise nature of the rabbinic critique, she draws on scholarship about such objects as the signet ring, such cultural institutions as banquet culture and slavery, and such traits discussed by the Stoics as luxuria, silence, and self-restraint. The combinations of these tools at times leads to breathtaking insights about what the rabbis themselves are saying on their own terms.
At other times, Belser aligns herself with those whose voices she feels have been muted by the rabbinic texts. Throughout the book, Belser asks her readers to look beyond the interests of the rabbis themselves, to notice the voices of those whom they seldom mention, such as those of women and slaves. She is refreshingly explicit about these commitments and about how they drive her scholarship, and it is because of this explicitness that I do not feel that she has imposed her commitments onto the rabbinic texts she studies.
I would like to suggest that Belser’s conclusion would have been stronger had she employed this strategy of shifting alignments here as well. Aligned with the rabbis, she has demonstrated that God does not take the side of the conquerors, the Roman Empire. The Romans, for the rabbis in Gittin, are decidedly not messengers of God, performing God’s bidding. Rather than arguing that God is thus, for the rabbis, aligned with suffering Jewish flesh, she could have shifted vantage points. She might have noted that although the rabbis themselves level biting critiques against wealth and opulence, they portray God as most responsive to wealthy men experiencing social oppression. She might then have used her discussion of divine responsivity as a constructive suggestion for how a modern thinker might take this rabbinic strand further, rather than claiming that the rabbis themselves saw God as being aligned with suffering Jewish flesh. Nonetheless, she, and the rabbis before her, have certainly laid the groundwork for such a constructive theological project to rise from the ashes of Jerusalem.
Miriam-Simma Walfish, a doctoral candidate in rabbinics in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at Harvard University, studies family, gender, and the body in the Babylon Talmud’s formation process. Her article, “Upending the Curse of Eve: Reframing Maternal Breastfeeding in BT Ketubot,” appears in Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination (Liverpool University Press, 2017).